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Robbie had heard it often enough. You have been with Morse for too long. Why don’t you go for Inspector? Even Morse himself told him he was ready; and yet he stayed at his side for years.

Maybe it had been because he liked working with him so much, or perhaps he had felt Morse’s loneliness. God knew the late (it still gave him a pang when he remembered) DCI could have used more friends.

Whatever the reason, he’d stayed, continually ignoring the chance to get promoted, and when he did…

He learned all too quickly that he was simply set in his ways.

Or rather, his and Morse’s ways.

The first DS that got assigned to him, DS Starling, was in no ways a bad fit; as a matter of fact, they bonded quickly over the families they had left in Newcastle – Superintendent Strange had probably counted on that.

But when it came to working on cases…

Morse had not been nearly as difficult to deal with as many other officers believed; yes, he could be morose, but he usually he did let Robbie do what he needed to do, listened to his theories far more than people thought, and he’d given him credit when he’d felt ne deserved it.

Robbie knew he had never been the cleverest DS, but he had known what to do, and when to do it.

DS Starling, on the other hand, invariably waited for instructions, and wouldn’t do a step without informing him of it.

While he knew that it was his responsibility that she’d grow into a good police officer, he couldn’t help but think he had shown a bit more initiative, back in the day.

Within a few months, it became clear that their partnership was not working out. When he carefully told Strange, while making sure that no blame falls on DS Starling, he actually laughed. “You really were with Morse for too long. Don’t worry Lewis, we’ll find the right Sergeant for you eventually.”

“DS Starling and Browning seem to be a good match” he reported to Val a few weeks later.

Certainly a better one than she and Robbie had made.

“You’ll find your DS in good time. Didn’t you tell me once that Strange had given up on partnering Morse with anyone until that case where the poor woman hanged herself?”

It was true; one day early in their partnership, their boss had waited for the moment Morse stepped out of the office to let Lewis know how delighted he was that he could “deal” with him.

Lewis had never seen being partnered with Morse as a mistake or some form of punishment. On the contrary, for him it had been a privilege.

Now, if only he could find another partner he felt comfortable with.

DS Graham was the opposite of DS Starling. While she had always been eager to let Robbie know where she was, and what she was doing, Graham would rather go his own way; and while he was more than ready to give his Sergeant a little leeway of the need arose, he didn’t care for someone thinking they were so far above him he didn’t even deserve to be told what they were planning to do to solve a murder case.

He’d always considered himself rather level-headed, but Graham was definitely putting his temper to the test.

Robbie put his foot down when he got a complaint. Apparently Graham had insinuated that a woman was beaten by her husband on a regular basis when it wasn’t true; at least that was the impression Robbie got when he visited them and found them understandably upset. It reminded him of a know-it-all DI back in the day, one Morse had rightly paid no attention to whatsoever, and he returned to the station to read an unrepentant Graham the riot act.

“I thought it might be a good idea to rile them up a little bit, sir”.

“Rile them up? They’re witnesses, man, not suspects! What is the public going to think if we –“

“If you’ll forgive me saying so, sir, but I don’t think Inspector Morse ever cared what the public thought.”

As it happened, Robbie was very much not inclined to forgive such a comment. First of all, to not even call Morse by the rank he had finally achieved shortly before he and Robbie became partners; and then the way he pronounced his name, as if he had just been some meek little detective, unable to play nice –

“It doesn’t matter what DCI Morse did or did not care about” he said as calmly as he could, “On the other hand, my opinion should matter a bit more to you.”

“If you say so, sir.”

He was certain he’d never talked to Morse that way, not once. They had had their fights, but he had never openly antagonized him like that.

When he went to see Strange that afternoon, there was none of the sympathy he had shown for Starling.

Strange sighed. “I knew as soon as the complaint came in that you wouldn’t stand for it… Not something Morse would have tolerated in the circumstances, either.”

“Because it’s not right, sir, he can’t just –“

“I know, Lewis, I know. Unfortunate, but we’ll have to make do.”

Val immediately understood, of course. She always did. “Small wonder you want another partner.”

He slumped down on the sofa next to her. “I am starting to think the only one I could ever work with on a long term basis has been gone for a while now.”

“Oh Robbie, don’t. Morse wouldn’t have wanted that for you. I am sure you’ll find the right partner eventually.”

And so he tried again.

This time, it was hard to pinpoint what exactly wasn’t working in their partnership.

DS Simon was neither as dependent of him as DS Starling had been, nor as defiant as Graham; and yet –

And yet.

They rubbed along well together for a few months, or at least everyone including Strange seemed to think so; and Robbie himself couldn’t really point out any flaws in their partnership; but something was missing.

Something elusive, something he had shared with Morse and didn’t know how to put a name to.

Not for the first time, he wished Morse had a grace. It would have made no difference, of course, but he still believed he would have felt better if he could have visited him. Told him about Simon, about how he never truly felt a connection with him;: how he didn’t think he was a worthy successor; how he sometimes at night was plagued by doubts whether Morse hadn’t made a grave mistake in making him his DS to begin with.

And then came the day when nothing of it mattered anymore.

He had been waiting for Val, feeling inexplicably nervous; and much later, after a bottle of brandy, he would think that he had known, that deep down he had been aware he wouldn’t see her again.

The DCs who came to tell him the news were sympathetic. He knew them by sight. And of course they knew him; anyone who had been partnered with Morse as long as Robbie had been would have been well known amongst their colleagues.

But then again – who cared.

He had lost Val.

He had lost everything.

He didn’t expect anyone to come pick him up. The new Superintendent wanted to meet him soon, he knew – and there was every reason to believe that he was going to be sent away to a teaching post, everything he had learned under Morse to be wasted trying to teach young Constables who had never even seen a dead boy before; quite frankly, he didn’t have any problems letting her wait.

He had long ago, perhaps even before Val’s death, given up on finding a sergeant he could work as well with as he had with Morse.

And yet, there he was, with a sign that said Lewis.

“Are you for me?” Robbie asked.

Only later would he realize that it had been one of the most important questions of his life.